Saturday, March 08, 2008

[olympiaworkers] SWAZILAND: Worst labour strife in a decade

SWAZILAND: Worst labour strife in a decade

MBABANE, 6 March 2008 (IRIN ) - A bloody week of the worst labour strife
in a decade has exposed cracks in the Swazi government's
poverty-alleviation plan of creating thousands of low-paying jobs by
promoting a textile industry.

In the strike action, which began on 3 March, workers participating in
peaceful marches to demand better salaries have been teargassed and beaten
by police, and at least a dozen have reportedly been injured. More than
16,000 workers, most of them women, have been affected by the strike

Local media reported that the Swaziland police carried out unprovoked
attacks on peaceful marchers on the first day of the strike. Several
injuries were reported after riot police shot teargas into a line of
marchers in the Matsapha Industrial Estate outside the central commercial
town of Manzini.

Police spokesman Vusi Masuku defended the police action, saying some
marchers had attempted to stop other textile workers from going to work.
Some Asian-owned shops adjacent to factories reported looting.

On 5 March, several marchers were beaten and teargassed after vandals
sealed the lock on the gate of a textile factory with glue. Uncertain of
the culprits' identities, the police randomly struck at marchers, some of
whom had to be hospitalised. One policewoman was injured by a thrown

Alex Fakudze, president of the Swaziland Manufacturing and Allied Workers
Union (SMAWU), told the Industrial Court on 5 March that factory owners
had instructed the police to assault strikers. Industrial Court President
Peter Dunseith ordered the police to permit peaceful picketing outside
company premises.

"My take-home pay is R300 (about US$38) a fortnight," said Cynthia
Ndwandwe, a mother of five employed by an Asian-owned garment factory. "I
can no longer afford to buy bread."

Only job creating sector

Swaziland's textile industry is dominated by garment-making factories
owned by Taiwanese immigrants who came to Swaziland in 2000/02 to take
advantage of preferential trade conditions with the US under the African
Growth and Opportunity Act, creating tens of thousands of employment

The country is one of the few that has diplomatic ties with Taiwan and
does not recognise the People's Republic of China. Taiwan returned the
favour by encouraging its garment-makers to invest in Swaziland.

In turn, the Swazi government has offered tax holidays to incoming firms,
and constructed factory shells that are sometimes leased for free of
charge to large employers.

Textiles have become a key player in Swaziland's otherwise moribund
manufacturing sector, which saw many of its multinational companies
relocate to South Africa when apartheid ended in 1994 and economic
sanctions against the government were lifted, making it unnecessary to use
neighbouring Swaziland to gain access to South Africa's market.

Asian-owned textile firms, mainly located at the Matsapha Industrial
Estate, offered the only significant job creation in the past decade, and
led to the development of a new industrial park at Shiselweni, the
regional capital in the south of the country, where some firms have set up

Low wages and "cultural conflicts" bedevilled labour relations from the
outset, but came to a head when a strike vote was approved by 30 percent
of the nation's 16,000 SMAWU members, with the remainder abstaining,
according to the union.

The union seeks to raise wages by 12 percent. "Textile workers are forced
to live on mediocre salaries," said Fakudze. "How can breadwinners be
expected to provide for their families on just R600 ($77) a month?"

The Ministry of Enterprise and Employment, which brought the textile
industry to Swaziland, called workers and management to a resolution
conference in Manzini for the evening of 6 March. On the table will be the
wage dispute, but another less tangible issue will likely remain
unresolved when workers return to their jobs: the workers' complaint about
lack of respect.

"The Asians treat us like children," said Ndwandwe. "They yell, they speak
down to us. This is not the Swazi manner of conduct. We think of them as
guests in this country, and we refuse to be mistreated by people we have
shown hospitality."

Members of parliament have complained that textile factory owners bring in
relatives for management positions rather than train and promote Swazis,
and have expressed concern about an isolationist mentality in the Asian
community: parts of government-built factory shells have been converted
into living quarters, which management rarely leaves.

The Swaziland Textile Exporters Association, which is following a no-work
no-pay rule for the duration of the strike, argued that it had met
government's goal of creating jobs in a country where few are available.
The association said the expense of doing business in Swaziland, coupled
with competition from China, put factories in an economic bind.

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